Lively…on Beyonce (?)


Much of the conversation in class after we finished viewing Lemonade this week centered on the expansive funding required to produce a professionally scripted and directed visual album that features elaborate costuming, choreography, and set designing. There is something to be said about the size of the platform Beyonce has by leading the production of this film, but that creates a slippery slope. These discussions can, for example, suggest that various hypothetical redistributions of the presumably hefty final costs of a project of this size might have directly benefited intended viewers and very people it features. That said, the film has spawned a large academic response in just three years, so it stands to reason that scholarship on it will only grow at a higher frequency in the coming years. Thus, our attention should be redirected toward the functionality and general value of the film.   

Ashleigh Shackleford’s article discusses representation, and the tone of her essay mixes compliments with condemnation. The notion of representation is an intriguing one because, on the surface, it seems to be the most respectful way to display oneself artistically as conscientious of minorities and marginalized groups. However, meeting our collective idea of how we are differentiated (e.g. age, gender, sexuality, ableness, skin tone) would lean toward inclusion more than it would representation. Shackleford sees the film as a missed opportunity for Beyonce et al. to destroy stereotypes from within the Black community because the film does not include any “fat” Black women, especially since “fat” professional dancers exist, but none were brought into the fold of this film’s creation. If this criticism of the film were included as a paired text with Lemonade for undergraduates or high school students, the instructor has an obligation to chart the distinct differences between these two terms. 

One of the arcs presented throughout the visual narrative is that of a jaded lover who vocalizes her inquiries as to the whereabouts of someone with whom she is intimate, and we  eventually see that she has correctly guessed at/uncovered his disloyalty. A particularly curious portion of the narrative that stands out early in the film is the baseball-bat wielding version of Beyonce whose anger is represented through various acts of glass-smashing, denting, and crushing while maintaining a presumably satisfied smirk. While these criminal acts may not just be a thinly veiled revenge trope, the sinister exuberance she appears to be experiencing while creating so much havoc is simultaneously progressive and regressive. Fearlessly acting out an immediate impulse to destroy can inspire (especially impressionable) viewers to react just as violently through similar vivid, lasting “statements” when they are victimized. However, it is equally regressive not to promote a less violent response. The Louisville Slugger-swinging character clearly represents a fed-up woman whose struggle while being on the receiving end of a (now former) lover’s emotional abuse are behind her. This angry, reactionary, and physically agile persona exemplifies the liberating ramifications of shedding the anvils of a toxic relationship by violently (and/or maniacally?) destroying objects of literal or sentimental value, but the character here is less directly reminding viewers that it is only the relationship–not the individual–that has died. Perhaps a second missed opportunity lay in the absent scenes of this liberated, untethered woman celebrating a personal or professional success instead of the imagery of instant gratification, which, at its core, perpetuates the adrenaline-enhanced–but relatively brief–antidote that a smashing ceremony does for one’s soul. 

Critiquing Criticism – Week 2 -Part 1 (?)


On Monday, our 19th century American Lit course met to discuss two critical articles that focused on the book American Renaissance by F. O. Matthiessen and tied those articles to the core text for the week, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (original 1855 edition). Because most of you are likely uninterested in the specific details and critical strategies of the academic articles, the book they discuss, or the classic text involved with all three, I’ll save you from as much extemporaneous material as I can. Thanks for reading though. I’ll place all the texts at the bottom if you’re genuinely looking to brush up on your literary criticism. In short, Matthiessen spent well over a decade putting together this critical text that centered on the five authors (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman) whom he deemed had single-handedly created a unique, unprecedented American voice in the mid-nineteenth century.

Students in my past have often asked (in their own way) how the excerpts that they’ve been assigned to read in textbooks or anthologies were selected and have continued to appear, generations after their publications. In their words, it’s something like “Why can’t we read authors who are alive and stuff?” Many times, I’ve chatted with parents who want to 1) tell me what they read in high school, 2) ask if their son or daughter will be assigned the same books as they themselves were assigned a generation earlier, 3) regenerate a love (or lack of) for a canonical text (e.g. “Are you gonna make them read The Scarlet Letter? I HATED that book!”), or 4) all of these.

Here’s where it gets a little interesting: Matthiessen was clearly an intellectual man whose passion for not only identifying and categorizing these works, but also for demystifying them and creating the groundwork for the first truly American canon of literature. He was also a vocal advocate for academic freedom at a prestigious university. Because he challenged so many traditions and norms, he earned a widespread following of cheerers and jeerers. [Jeerers, evidently, is not a known word to my computer; however, this is just a blog, so I’m moving forward.] When his book was finally released (he’d had to “check himself in” at one point because the project had become so overwhelming and he was also afraid his lover was on the brink of death [more on that in a sec]), he was met with a less than resounding response from his colleagues in literary circles.

So, Matthiessen was a homosexual man. It feels so strange to write that [because, so what?…right?], but it ends up being pertinent to this brief essay. For decades now, American Renaissance–by far his most notable publication–has become the subject of a vast amount of interpretations. I have not read it, but that’s secondary. Anyway, his own reservations about how much of these authors’ personal lives and lifestyles should play into his criticisms was apparently always at the forefront of his mind. What’s even crazier–crazier is a word but it’s not very academic…meh–is that some of Matthiessen’s critics thought he offers a less authentic book because he essentially omitted the authors’ sexuality, even though he himself was writing a genesis of what’s become “gay criticism.”

This leads to the question that found its way in the center of our class discussion this week: When writing a critical article over a piece of literature (or really any art), does the critic have an obligation to insert anything beyond the art, or should the artist (and his/her life, history, sexuality, politics, etc.) be discussed as well? Matthiessen’s book also prompted some to suggest that the critic’s own life, history, sexuality, politics, etc. should be in play as well.

I suppose a less intense way to discuss this debate is to think about why you like the art you like. Why, for instance, does a Picasso piece appeal or disgust you? Why are you drawn to Game of Thrones? Why do you still have your favorite songs from when you were fourteen in a saved playlist? If you told me the answer to any of these, would you be comfortable with me bringing in your past relationships, your issues with your parent(s), your sexuality, or your voting history as my interpretation of why you still love Asking Alexandra?

I don’t have answers. But I find this discussion intriguing. The era of criticism most of us have been conditioned to follow/use has been what’s known as New Criticism–interpreting/judging the art for itself and dismissing all other aspects. However, is it possible to truly analyze art without consciously or subconsciously harboring in our own lives and perspectives?

Subconsciously Selfish: Motherhood in Part One of Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ (1929)


In an era that was bursting with independent thought and expression, at least one Harlem Renaissance author designed a story that balances the past and present for women of African descent who have immersed themselves into white culture and are cultivating a new lifestyle in the process.  For a novel so rich in exposing racial inequalities and the personal hardships of women whose core identity has become buried due to social pressures, Nella Larsen’s Passing–specifically, the details also exhibits how some African-American women in the early twentieth century were selfishly shedding a notably natural, maternal bond with their own children and redirecting their attention to advancing their own social status and reputation.  

Throughout the novel, Irene and Clare exchange a series of perspectives on their lives, their pasts, and their outlooks.  Interestingly, however, their children are commonly mentioned only as afterthoughts during these talks. The theme of selfishness presents itself just before a previous meeting between the two main characters is detailed.  In the opening flashback of this first encounter after twelve years, Irene is trying to gather some gifts she’d promised to get for her two sons while she was in Chicago and they were at summer camp. This detail doesn’t need to be unpacked too deeply because children being sent to camp is not necessarily a selfish act on the mother’s part.  What is bizarre and revealing about this moment in the story is how Irene, after failing to find her son a specific book, witnesses a stranger who “toppled over and became an inert crumpled head on the scorching cement” (1083). While not everyone is trained to address the needs of someone who might have fainted from heat exhaustion, Irene reveals a lot about herself by simply walking on and seeking out a tea to help her relax.  After taking a second cup of tea on the roof of the Drayton, she eventually remembers her unfulfilled promise to her son and compares his desire for a specific drawing-book to her husband’s desire for “invariably [wanting] something that was difficult or impossible to get” (1083). Irene is clearly burdened by her son’s wishes, which shows a disconnect between mother and son that was not commonly exhibited in the works of female authors prior to Larsen.  

Once Irene and Clare reunite in the flashback, their conversation focuses on the past at first.  This information clearly adds depth to the relationship between the two characters, but there is one notable absence from their initial exchange: neither one thinks to ask the other about their own family right away.  Conversation styles differ among all people and within all eras; however, it seems rather unnatural for each woman to offer information about their children so deep into their conversation. In fact, Larsen’s own description of Irene’s references to her son are mixed within a slew of other life events.  The reader is left wondering if Larsen herself believes children to be just as insignificant as her own character does.

Specifically, Irene displays a gaudy amount of selfishness shortly after sharing her life over the last twelve years with Clare.  Even though “Clare drank it all in,” Irene does not reciprocate by politely asking about her old friend’s family and life; in fact, she “had a very definite unwillingness to do so” (1088).  Before Irene departs, however, Clare has the opportunity to wedge her daughter’s name into the conversation, though she is forced to use the ten-year-old as incentive for a second meeting with Irene (1089).  During their second, even shorter, encounter, Clare mentions her daughter again, though the daughter is away at a lake with other children. This anecdote continues the unprecedented theme of detached motherhood.  Other critics might suggest that there is a clear parallel between the adult women characters consciously allowing their children to build their sense of independence while subconsciously struggling with their own, which is a challenge for all parents regardless of role or gender.  However, I posit that these women have never truly be invested in their children’s lives or success. Lacking within the descriptions of either woman is a longing to be reunited with their children. Neither one loses track of their busy social schedules because they are deep in reminiscence about holding their babies, nursing them, or teaching them anything.  The children–really, their absence–emerges as a symbol of each woman’s selfishness. Here, Larsen is signaling a significant change of motherhood in the black community by presenting characters of higher social status.

Before the end of part one, the final, damning encounter that summarizes this apathy toward children involves a guest of Clare’s named Gertrude Martin.  These women all knew one another from their youth, and they are sharing experiences about “passing”. The seemingly harmless exchange about gender preference for their newborns catapults rather unexpectedly after Gertrude mentions that her husband had wanted a girl.  Clare, drink in hand, states to the group that she’s “afraid” to have any more children because she “nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that [the baby] might be dark” (1096). Unlike before, this single line demands to be unpacked.  

Gertrude and Clare, the two women who have “passed” into the white mainstream of American, support one another’s thoughts about how frightful it is to bring a baby into the world because, as “passers”, there is an apparent risk of the child’s skin tone being dark. This fear of the child being dark-complected is an obvious reference to the overt challenges for blacks that they have heard about, witnessed, and projected for the future.  Embedded within that, however, is a stunning amount of shame that was not found in the literature from earlier women writers of African descent. Notably, Irene counters this shame by announcing to the group, “One of my boys is dark” (1097). To sidestep any tension, Clare says that “coloured people…are too silly about some things” and switches the focus to “deserters like [her]” and a former associate named Claude Jones (1097).

This redirection suggests that Clare is well aware of how women within the black community have varying opinions on the future of their race.  It seems, however, that the dominating theme among this novel is that children who enter the world as dark have will have a lifetime filled with strain and disappointment, which is incredibly heartbreaking, yet believable at the same time.

Hurston’s Janie: Changing the Narrative of Black Female Protagonists


In a novel replete with striking imagery, revealing dialect, and weighty themes, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God features an unprecedented protagonist whose integrity and will eventually carried her through three marriages and various instances of verbal- and mental abuse.  Though each husband has a distinct function in her life and in the novel, the manner in which each marriage concludes exhibits a slightly different facet of the main character, which escalates how female lead characters continue to abandon the long-standing gender roles and social expectations of black women, especially those in the American South.  

By characterizing a woman whose insistence of being respected by her husband leads her to shake free of her first marriage, Hurston introduces a character whose self-respect outweighs the apparent social norms of her time.  Logan Killicks was far from romantic. Their marriage was nothing short of an arrangement where Janie served far more as an employee than as an equal or a lover. Thus, as Janie is offering this stage of her life to Phoeby, the scant details focus solely on Killicks’ comparison of Janie’s apparent laziness to his “fust wife” who “never bothered [him] ‘bout choppin no wood nohow” as well as how Janie “done been spoilt rotten” (26).   In rapid-fire narrative style, Janie meets Joe Starks and shares their flirtatious tryst with Phoeby. During Killicks’ final scene, Killicks is described as overly tired–something many men in this book have in common–but Janie pushes forward with the notion of leaving him for someone else. He downplays her idea as a waste of time because “‘[t]’ain’t too many mens would trust yuh, knowin’ yo’ folks lak dey do” (30). Arguably, at that precise moment in her first marriage, Janie could envision her future with Killicks and more than likely resolved to leave him at the earliest opportunity and accept Joe Sparks’ offer.  This clearly demonstrates how Hurston intentionally clashed Janie’s self-respect with the complacency of black characters presented before her. T

Janie’s relationship with Sparks displays a new set of roles and opportunities for her.  As the wife of someone whose initiative and ability to build a black community is unparalleled by any other resident, Janie’s social status escalates, even though Joe never affords her the opportunity to speak publicly.  However, to say Sparks simply duped her into this marriage to legitimize his social status in a town full of strangers might overstep the truth. Both men so far had previously cooed rhymes to her, a gesture that Janie values and clearly wished had continued.  Like Killicks, any romantic feelings Joe held toward Janie are quickly suffocated by his selfish desire for power and raising the town’s level of respect for him.

Throughout the twenty years they were together, Janie rarely challenged Joe and settled into her slim pocket of the store and home while her husband enjoyed a career of being touted as a great leader.  When she did publicly confront his misogyny and attack his manhood, he shunned her by sleeping in a different room. Hurston describes this short phase of their relationship as the “sleep of swords” and directly challenges the hypocrisy of Joe’s insults: “Why must Joe be so mad with her for making him look so small when he did it to her all the time?” (81).  Here, Hurston launches from her predecessors’ descriptions of this imbalance and bullhorns to the reader that this uneven trajectory simply cannot continue as women struggle to achieve equality.

What is vital to the closing of this chapter of her life was how Janie maintained respect for the man who used her throughout her early adulthood.  Her loyalty toward Joe up to the bitter end of his life exhibits how Hurston sees women as respectful and selfless. Upon meeting Tea Cake, however, Janie is challenged by the townspeople because starting a new relationship after the passing of a husband is, to them, a clear sign of disrespect.  Janie refuses to fall into that social trap, however. By exhibiting a believable, multi-faceted woman in this novel, Hurston dispels the limited roles for black women and clearly instructs them to abandon these social norms and live the life they want.

Tea Cake’s selflessness is apparent by putting himself between the dog and Janie.  Later, she demonstrates reserve and respect toward her dying husband and even regrets how his illness is affecting her ability to tend to him (182).  In the horrifying moment of their final battle, Janie’s self-defense leads her to shoot her husband, which reinforces Hurston’s desire for women to balance altruistic loyalty and self-preservation.  The faceless, nameless jury excuses her from punishment, which also suggests that all of Janie’s actions–from escaping a slave-like marriage to Killicks to killing a diseased Tea Cake–have become universally accepted.  The fact that Janie has outlasted three men, two of whom succumbed to death, further emphasizes that women who strive for self-improvement while shifting out of the pre-established social norms can and will live much longer, fruitful lives.


Gwendolyn Brooks and the Unknown


Upon winning the Midwestern Writers’ Conference poetry award in 1943, Gwendolyn Brooks pieced together what became her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville (325). In it, her gritty view of the south-Chicago neighborhood offers an unfiltered look into the lives of the area’s inhabitants and focuses on the domestic clashes between generations, social classes, siblings, and lovers.  On the heels of The Harlem Renaissance and World War II, Brooks deposited a unabashed reality of an American community whose stagnant state was the direct result of a government who provided virtually no assistance to returning black soldiers or their families.  A sense of identity and the unknown world is prevalent throughout a majority of this early published work. Two of the poems from A Street in Bronzeville carry with them a recurring curiosity and appeal toward the unknown.  A third poem, also published in 1945, continues her philosophical attention toward the unknown through the actions of a suave young man.  

This attention to the unknown appears in “kitchenette building”, a poem that juxtaposes personal ambition and personal obligation.  “Dream”, Brooks writes, “makes a giddy sound” which indicates how exciting aspirations can be. Immediately thereafter, however, she contrasts that with “strong” terms such as “rent” or “satisfying a man” (326).  This suggests that one’s dreams must come secondary to the daily obligations, especially for those in neighborhoods such as Bronzeville who are limited to living within tight quarters and represent a socio-economic reality for post-World War II readers.  The ambitions and advancements of the Harlem Renaissance artists should not be dismissed, but Brooks’ image of a family struggling to retain housing and the bare necessities such as food strike down the lofty goals of equality and immersion in white culture.  This speaker, the poem suggests, will be satisfied if there is enough “lukewarm water” remaining after the last child has bathed (326).

In “Sadie and Maud” Brooks exposes how two sisters’ different paths into adulthood sharply contrast the implied wisdom and direction of their parents or predecessors.  Sadie did not further her education and ended up with two children and no husband, which led to her sister and parents being ashamed of her (328). The final stanza, however, suggests that Maud’s conservative, academic route might have fulfilled her (and, presumably, her parents’) goals, but doing so also left her without a family of her own.  Maud, possibly on the advice of the previous generation, is falling in line with the politics of respectability in that furthering her education is the sole opportunity to enjoy a more fruitful existence. Yet, the implication with the final image of being “all alone/In this old house” is that Maud’s decision was the poorer of the two because she is left in an isolated state (328).  Presumably, Maud is the first of her lineage to qualify and attend college, which becomes the unknown presence in this poem. With no other details to apply, we are left connecting Maud’s academic aspirations with her lack of a family with whom she can enjoy the fruits of her scholarly labor. Brooks, thus, suggests a cautionary tale to her modernist readers because they may not wish to make the same sacrifices as Maud does in the spirit of gaining social acceptance in the educated world.  

Thirdly, the dense poem “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” offers a different spin on the unknown.  The entire poem details the minute-to-minute actions of a local ladies’ man whose entire existence is based in mystery and materialism.  Throughout the verse, the man’s previously unknown actions are delivered by an omniscient speaker. The previously unknown doings of Satin-Legs are suddenly now paired with this much broader announcement about humanity: “People are so in need, in need of help/People want so much that they do not know” (330).  Brooks is commenting on the ever-present magnetism toward instant gratification in the modern world by suggesting “they do not know” about the voids in their lives. Sexual satisfaction–unlike a healthy, more conventional intimate relationship–simply cannot endure. Brooks vocalizes this warning to her readers that abandoning traditional values and replacing them with satisfying selfish desires will ultimately doom the moral code of society.  

Though Gwendolyn Brooks was clearly inspired by the art and writings of Harlem Renaissance giants, she establishes a less abrasive morality in her poems by orchestrating recognizable individuals and painting cautionary images of black community members who have inched closer to forgetting or abandoning a traditional moral compass.  

Mercer’s Crucial Role as “Lifesaver” in Dave Eggers’ The Circle


Though the central theme of Dave Eggers’ 2013 technology-driven dystopian novel The Circle jars readers and indirectly instructs them to disconnect electronically from a world where a single American company has far more control than any fascist dictatorship in real life, the author includes a tragic character named Mercer, whose morals are in line with what many readers believe theirs to be.  In just four years since its publication as of this writing, the novel has garnered more and more attention from those who identify the trajectory of American culture to be poisoned by an ever-increasing addiction to social media presence.  As the number of unique–and presumably human–users create accounts on enormously popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the real-life “Circle” discussed in the novel is arguably coming closer and closer to completion and reality.  Paradoxically, and perhaps unintentionally, many of these human users submit public and semi-public posts pining for simpler times.  Parents and grandparents are prone to post commentaries about how young children spend too much time staring at various screens for far too long.  Conversely,  public- and private school students in early elementary school are assigned electronic tablets with built-in smart technology to use in the event of a weather cancellation or professional development day for the faculty.  

There is a very real, very effective change in world culture due in large part to the sharing of information.  “We have seen a shift between someone’s right to know and someone’s right to privacy,” the author said during a free talk at Indiana University in October of 2015 (Church).  The addiction to read and share has rapidly altered our existance, and Eggers, through the vehicle of Mercer’s character, is showing us that it is not too late to turn back and enjoy the simple act of face-to-face interaction.  

The novel’s central character is twenty-four-year old Mae Holland, whose expensive private college education has launched her into the unengaging world of her city’s utility company.  The novel begins with Mae being granted an opportunity to work at The Circle, a vastly growing technology company whose IPO has already surpassed an astounding $3 Billion in earnings (Eggers 20).  The company rolls out earth-changing ideas on a regular basis and has even more in the works that are occassionally announced during their monthy Dream Friday meetings, led by one of the “Three Wise Men” founders, Eamon Bailey.  Mae’s initiation into the company is utterly overwhelming, both to her and the reader.  Everything from the idyllic landscape to the countless on-campus learning/gathering opportunities impresses upon Mae and the world that The Circle embodies the future of the biz-tech world. It is where Mae, beginning with her first steps on the grounds, finally feels a sense of worth that, it must be noted, she clearly lacked at the utility company and has never experienced on a personal level, especially when she was Mercer’s girlfriend years earlier.

Mae’s father has obtained Multiple Sclerosis, resulting in her parents having to devote a large portion of their income toward medication and doctor visits.  It is during a visit home that the true impact of the disease makes its unfortunate presence known to Mae. Shortly into her tenure at The Circle, that same sense of worth extends to her parents being granted top-shelf medical coverage–coverage that is far from customary in mainstream America.  Yet, this unforeseen perk does not come off as bribery or anything sinister.  If anything, the gesture of parental coverage further proves to Mae that this company is purposefully unlike any other American company in history.  They genuinely care about the well-being of their employees, their employees’ families, and the citizens of the world.

 Furthermore, in the first major scene where Mercer and Mae are present, the reader is sated with an exposure to their tumultuous relationship.  Eggers establishes the central character’s new-found positivity through a conversation she has with her parents shortly after beginning her new career.  Her salary has escalated to a respectable “sixty-two” [thousand] and, in her mother’s view, that Mae works for “the hottest company…and has full dental” (Eggers 73). Her father, who has exhibited little more than constant exhaustion and aggravation, chirps up when he learns that she has stock options (Eggers 74).  They express their adoration for their daughter and her friend Annie, who helped secure the position.

Mercer is first mentioned a breath later.  Readers learn that he is a craftsman who “makes chandeliers out of antlers”, which, presumably Mae is mocking as unimportant or insignificant, especially when compared to the massive, global changes The Circle is making (Eggers 75).  Her father lassos his daughter’s tone by suggesting that owning and operating one’s own business is far from easy work, but Mae quickly shifts the discussion of one of her ex-boyfriend’s career to her own early success at The Circle.  This snippet of information about Mercer clearly establishes him as the “anti-Mae”, and the reader cannot help but become curious if he will unfold as a foil, a rekindled love interest, or a bold antagonist–should the plot continue to display Mae’s (and The Circle’s) positive impact on the world.

Before returning to her new life and job, Mae realizes she has some extra time before needing to be back and spontaneously elects to go kayaking.  We learn that Mercer is responsible for teaching Mae the ins and outs about the water activity, which creates the sport as an obvious symbol for two major themes of the book: Independence and The Past.  By assigning an activity for one person to be able to enjoy alone, Eggers cleverly shows how Mae still clings to the solace of being on her own without any responsibilities beyond staying alive.  Furthermore, the choice fits Mae very well because she has already been established as one who is drawn to challenges and has an apparent undying drive to prove herself to the world.  The note that Mercer is the one who turned her on to the sport also suggests that Mae is not willing to completely abandon any and all connections with Mercer.  Though it is reasonable to believe that Mercer was not at the forefront of her brain every time she stepped into a kayak, he remains a constant in her subconscious.  Similarly, many people today–in this social media culture of recording and publishing for limited and widespread audiences–might feel an obligation simply to enjoy the experience without the incessant postings to prove they are enjoying the experience.  Yet, the number of social media users continues to grow.

A short time later, after Mae has adjusted to her new role with The Circle and has adapted to the social structure of after-hours parties and gathering with her new co-workers, she receives the same short repeated message from her mother: “Come home” (Eggers 126).  Her ailing father had suffered a seizure, and rather naturally, Mae rushes home to see him.  Upon arrival, she learns that “Mercer was a lifesaver” (Eggers 128).  Though Mae downplays the potential hyperbole in the comment, it becomes evident that she is more upset with the fact that she dropped everything at work, frantically rushed back to her hometown, and found her father sitting casually on the couch viewing a baseball game than she is with the fact that this disease is adversely affecting her father in the way it is.

This is a major turning point in the novel and in the relationship between Mae and Mercer.  Eggers is examining the two main viewpoints of the usefulness of techonology through the vehicles of the central character and her former lover.  Mercer is the only one of her four long-term former boyfriends who is still even in her life in some capacity.  His continued friendship with her parents allows him to remain tethered to her, regardless of how much she wishes he was completely out of her life.  Eggers, thus, is dangling the possibility that Mercer represents her subconscious moral perspective, but her life has become clouded and overwhelmed with the incessent need to share everything and like everyone and smile at all good causes.  It’s the sharing that becomes central to the sub-plot of how she and Mercer develop as civil adults who once dated.

During a meal at her parents where Mercer is the lone guest, Mae notices that one of his antler chandeliers is now hanging in the home in which she grew up.  Without his permission or knowledge, Mae secretly takes a picture and adds some complimentary notes.  It is fair to assume she had the best of intentions by doing this.  Mercer, she must have concluded, was not able to live a very extravagent life as a craftsman of woodsy home decor.  Before the evening has concluded–and well after Mae is slightly ostracized by her parents for being unable to simply enjoy the company and meal–she reveals that the picture has been sent out and is receiving very positive feeback.  

Almost childishly, Mae has, by this point, been swept up into this Otherworld while still in her parents’ house talking with her ex-boyfriend.  She’s out to impress them all with the connections she has and potential impact she can have on the future of his sales.  The problem, of course, is that Mercer does not want anything remotely close to this.  She excitedly reports to him that he has earned “122 smiles”, which is “an incredible amount to get so quickly” (Eggers 258).  Furthermore, she tells him that he’s “in the top fifty for today” on a site named DesignMind that apparently ranks the popularity of designs (Eggers 258-9).  Then, in a selfish turn of events, Mae realizes that this amount of late-evening online activity will boost her “PartiRank into the 1800s” (Eggers 259).  

Eggers here is clearly displaying how quickly the addiction of online presence and popularity so quickly replaces the thirst for human interaction.  Mercer stands with Mae–notably without a phone in his hand–and, at first, is calmly asking her to stop, but Mae is already talking faster than she’s thinking.  The device in her hand was designed for communication, but she cannot even put it down long enough to appease her guest in her parents’ house.  Discouragement toward her device comes from Mercer and her mother, but Mae is oblivious to Mercer’s departure from the dinner.  When she goes out to catch him, he reluctantly puts the car in park.  

This scene, in the literal center of the book, is agonizingly crucial to Eggers’ central theme.  In what becomes a heated discussion about the trajectory of each of their lives, we witness what might be years of suppressed angst toward one another rise to the surface and toward one another.  This relationship, arguably, is a microcosm of this crossroads Eggers identified early in the smart technology age–especially among young people whose homes have had internet access their entire lives.  

Among the most cutting lines toward Mae is that Mercer reveals that he has “never felt more that there is some cult taking over the world” (Eggers 260).  He continues to describe receiving a sales pitch of a product called “Homie” that, in essence, is an application that informs stores and distributors that a consumer is low on a product, thus removing the need to shop–online or in person–for a replacement item.  Predictably, Mae comes to the defense of her company and dismisses that it is not on the agenda of The Circle or any other company to seek “world dominiation” (Eggers 261).  Though Mercer provides multiple examples of this enclosing circle being masked as a “utopian vision,” his claims fall on Mae’s deaf ears (Eggers 261).  She calls him “paranoid” and “ignorant,” and she compares these ultra-fast tools such as Homie to primative, recognizable images of milkmen and butchers (Eggers 261).  What is overwhelmingly present during this staunch argument emerges as the central theme of the book: As convenient and as progressive as the claims of The Circle (or other companies and possibly governments) are, is it morally appropriate to allow it to continue solely on the notion that “They” have no ulterior, devious motive to do so?

Mercer serves as an literary anomoly in this novel.  His is a secondary role overall, but he is by far the most developed human in these 500+ pages.  He’s not a true antagonist either because he represents the moral compass.  It has been argued that Eggers’ style and development of these characters falls far short of what he had produced in previous novels such as Zeitoun and What is the What, but it is painfully obvious that Eggers, in The Circle, has yet another trick up his over-forty sleeve.  By relying on our conditioned expectation that Mercer will eventually pull Mae out of this twisted screen-obsessed, privacy-limiting world, he simultaneously leads the reader through a series of traditional complications that are eventually upended and unsettling.

Mercer’s role is downplayed by other critics, however.  Fernanda Moore notes the growing disparity between the former lovers, but views the chandelier artist as a “tendentious drip” (62).  What Moore might fail to realize is that Eggers uses Mercer–rather mercifully–in order for his young audience to comprehend the mentality.  In short, of course he’s a bit of a “drip” but this information-obsessed generation has, through no fault of their own, been conditioned to receive information as quickly and as succinctly as possible.  In order for The Circle to work and affect those born with a silver modem in their bedroom, Eggers realized he must not and cannot make Mercer a cryptic character.  

The brilliant underlying method behind all of this is the rather simplistic nature of their thoughts, actions, and statements.  As Mae becomes more and more flustered by Mercer’s case after the ruined dinner gathering, all she can muster in response to the Mercer’s meticulous aresenal of diminuitive statements about her job and her unexciting existance toward her is “Fuck you, Mercer” and “You’re such a fucker, Mercer” (Eggers 262).  These sharply tongued responses are not from someone who has been deprived of an education.  They are, however, snippets of how a world of limited response time and space online is transferring to a generational regression of substance in face-to-face communication.  Mercer, whose use of the Internet is limited to an email account and a website, formulates articulate, evidence-laden statements and Mae is limited to the childish, defense mechanism of downplaying his claims and resorting to vulgarity.  

Mercer falls back into the depths of Mae’s past for some time before he surfaces in Book II.  By this point, the two former lovers have not had any contact whatsoever.  Mae has shot through the ranks at The Circle and has all but become the fresh face of the newest innovation from the company: Transparency.  This willingness–notably through the charming and cunning acts of Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, two of the original Three Wise Men who founded The Circle–leads to an evaporation of anything Mae might have at one point in her life deemed private, boring, or insignificant.  By wearing a device that enables viewers to see (and virtually “do”) whatever she sees, Mae rallies for followers and smiles under the direction of her superiors.  At no point does Mae consider Bailey or Stenton to be devious puppeteers parading her around as a human laboratory experiment, which, it seems, is so very obviously what they are doing.  

Coincidentally, during a visit to Mae’s parents’ house, Mercer caught one of his former girlfriend’s Circle video feeds, and it spawned from him a letter that he later placed in her vehicle while she was inside the home.  In it, Mercer-slash-Eggers seems to be desparate in his plea to Mae (who by now clearly represents a generation of untalented-but-famous twenty-somethings).  The letter includes far fewer cutting commentary and serves more as a request for her to look at herself and her company in a philosophical manner.  Among his questions to her are the following: “Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” (Eggers 434).   Interestingly, the letter is interrupted because Mae’s audience can read it with her and have begun chiming in with negative commentary about being bored and comparing Mercer to Sasquatch. Moore dismisses this exchange as an example of how Eggers has “so much contempt” for this “lost generation” and that the author has basically evolved from a “literary wunderkind” to a seedy “curmudgeon” (62).  However, the scene serves well as Eggers’ continuing commentary on the shortening of attention spans and unwillingness to simply experience–in this case, read–something without feeling the need to offer a snarky line or any comment whatsoever.   

Mercer letter continues, and in it he expresses his plans to leave his hometown and is “moving north” (Eggers 435).  There exists a somber, failing tone as he goes on.  It seems as if he already knows his fate, but he continues on, as if he has not quite come to terms with what the world around him is becoming.   He tells Mae that “[she] and [The Circle] have won,” that “[i]t’s pretty much over,” but that he has “held out some hope that the madness was limited to” The Circle (Eggers 435).  What the author is doing here is showing us the bed our society is on track to make for itself.  The reader yearns for Mercer.  The reader wants Mae to rip off her Transparency device, throw her car in Drive, and go find this one man who still appreciates the wonders of this world far from any screen.  Mercer is admirable.  Mercer is honest.  Mercer is what humans always claim they want to be.

Yet, even though he plans to “be off the grid” and live “underground, and in the desert, in the woods…like refugees, or hermits”, two things become frighteningly clear: his quest/escape will not last long and, quite miserably, Mae will have no change of heart based on any of his thoughts or warnings.  With this inaction, her last real attempt to get him back in her life, Mae is fully formed as a one-dimensional being who is far more satisifed with a rocket-fire increase in online fandom than accepting her friend’s words as poignant and shedding this obsession with virtual popularity.  Here, she has lost all credibility and any remaining hope for moral goodness.  Eggers masterfully uses Mercer to provide multiple opportunities for Mae to become deep, honrorable, and sound.  However, because none of those attributes ever come to fruition, Mercer’s character is highlighted as one of the few remaining sane members in a rapidly evolving insane world.

Weirdly, his death is almost comforting to a reader.  No longer will Mercer fight a daily battle with a society that is closing in on completing The Circle but who lack general sense and traditional manners. Gone for him is this ever-increasing pressure to “get connected” or “be active online”.  Never again will Mercer have to click several links on a web page in order to have a customer-service representative assist him with a bill or a warranty.  

Reviewer Alexander Nazaryan has another intriguing take on Eggers’ attempt to offer a visual aid to what he deems to be the trajectory of the world.  “This is a novel about the silence in your head,” he writes, and notes the drone-led search for the escaping character as “worthy of Orwell” (Nazaryan).

A character like Mercer actually must die in a dystopian novel such as The Circle for the reader to grasp any real hope for the future.  What emerges as the most disconcerting conversation in the novel.  Typically, the wiser, older character who has watched over a traditional protagonist proffers sage advice and perspective after the sudden loss of a friend or family member.  Here, however, Eamon Bailey coldy–though it is not recognized as such by his single-member audience–tells Mae that “[g]rief doesn’t arrive on schedule, as much as we’d like it to” (Eggers 466).  He doesn’t want her to blame herself for Mercer’s death, but suggests that she should instead remember that she was “trying to help a very disturbed, antisocial young man” who turned away from “the embrace of humanity” (Eggers 466). Bailey later reflects aloud on his own frustration about similar situations and finds himself telling her that Mercer would still be alive if he’d been in a self-driving vehicle.  This cold, distanced commentary is a preview of what Mae will be bound to experience throughout the remainder of her life.  Sympathy and empathy appear to be absent from those who are within The Circle.  Mourning an avoidable death is, essentially, an infringement on their time and might affect onine activity or presence.  The fact that moments later Bailey and Mae are discussing the financial cost of rebuilding the bridge where Mercer died is chilling.  What is even more offensive is that Mae continues to nod and agree and accept these discussions as normal.  

Ultimately, Mae “meets” the third Wise Man, Ty Gospidinov.  During their tense exchange, he reveals that he has had a change of heart and is working to keep The Circle from completing.  Mae is astounded to learn this and ends up regurgitating much of what Bailey had just discussed with her, defending The Circle to no end, all the while suppressing the death of her former boyfriend and the withered condition of her former roommate.  Here, Eggers shows the utterly shocking lack of personal growth that Mae has experienced.  

Ty eventually asks her directly, “[w]ho wants to be watched all the time?” (Eggers 490). Her response is succinct, just like her personality: “I do.  I want to be seen.  I want proof I existed.”  She needs validation, not experience.  She prefers online followers to a cozy sunset.  Mercer was once her lover and had become her anti-self.  Through her undeniable obsession with being acknowledged, liked, followed, or smiled upon by millions of strangers across the world, she has set herself up for a life that is not worth living.  

Mercer, like so many people today, grasped what Mae never could: our lives are so precious that we are on track to miss out on life’s most amazing treasures because we cannot stop ourselves from sharing pictures and comments online about life’s most amazing treasures.


Works Cited

Church, Haley.  “Dave Eggers Discusses Pitfalls of Living Life Online.”  Indiana University Bloomington.  8 Oct. 2015. Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.  

Eggers, Dave.  The Circle.  Vintage,  2013.

Moore, Fernanda.  “These Rotten Kids Today.”  Commentary.  Vol. 137, no. 1.  Jan. 2014, pp. 61-62.  

Moore, Fernanda. “These Rotten Kids Today: Dave Eggers Hates Them.” Commentary, no. 1, 2014, p. 61. EBSCOhost,

Nazaryan, Alexander.  “Digital Dystopia: On Dave Eggers’ ‘The Circle’.”  Newsweek Global.  Vol. 161 Issue 38, 25 Oct. 2013